CNN WORLD News

Rebels apparently gone; hostages free

Hijacked ferry due in Istanbul

January 18, 1996
Web posted at: 10:30 a.m. EST (1530 GMT)

From Correspondents Eileen O'Connor, Steve Harrigan
and wire reports

PERVOMAISKAYA, Russia (CNN) -- Although small arms fire continued around the southern Russia village of Pervomaiskaya on Thursday, Russian President Boris Yeltsin announced the military operation there has come to an end.

Meanwhile, in Turkey, there was hope that a related ferry hijacking could be ended without bloodshed.

flares

A group of 40 hostages who had been held in the village told reporters the rebels holding them disappeared about 3 a.m., just before Russian troops surrounding the village were attacked from behind at the same time rebels tried to escape. Yeltsin said his security chief told him 82 hostages had been freed.

Recently released hostages were under guard by Russian forces at an administrative building just outside the village as Russian helicopter gunships continued flying overhead and the sound of small arms fire could be heard. Russian troops allowed a television crew to tour part of the village secured by Russian forces. Reporters could see bombed-out houses and charred bodies. Officers said their troops had not yet entered some areas of the village.

Surprise attack

Russian troops apparently were caught by surprise in the pre-dawn darkness Thursday as they were attacked from behind. It was not clear if the attackers were additional rebels who crossed into Dagestan from nearby Chechnya or if they were local Dagestanis sympathetic to the Chechen separatist cause. At the same time, according to Russian news media reports, about 70 rebels tried to break out of Pervomaiskaya. The reports said the rebels were forced back into the battered village while some of the rebel reinforcements escaped into Chechnya.

But Thursday morning, the hostages who came out of the village said there were no more rebels in Pervomaiskaya.

Yeltsin said 26 Russian soldiers had been killed in the fighting around Pervomaiskaya, which began a week ago when a bus convoy carrying the rebels and an estimated 70 to 120 hostages, including women and children, was stopped on its way to the nearby Chechen border.

Russian troops began shelling the village Wednesday, after the Federal Security Service said the rebels had begun executing hostages and only a handful remained. But a rebel spokesman in Chechnya said Wednesday that 16 hostages had been killed by Russian shelling, and many were wounded.

Turkish Navy awaits ferry

Turkey

A threat by Chechen sympathizers who on Tuesday hijacked a Black Sea ferry carrying 200 people, mostly Russians, has not slowed the Russian assault on Pervomaiskaya. Turkish officials expect the ship to arrive in Istanbul about 11 p.m. local time (2100 GMT; 4 p.m. EST) and say it will be met by a Turkish Navy flotilla of two destroyers, a frigate and several patrol boats.

The hijackers had said they would blow up the ferry unless the Russians stopped the battle at Pervomaiskaya. On Wednesday, however, they indicated they would release their captives if they were allowed to proceed unhindered into Istanbul, a course that would take the ferry into the Bosporus Strait, the waterway that splits Istanbul into European and Asian shores.

But Turkey's interior minister, Teoman Unusan, said Thursday the ferry would not be allowed into the busy Bosporus because there are explosives on board. "This is against international laws," Unusan said. There was no immediate reaction from the hijackers. Another Turkish government official said a proposal to allow the ship into Istanbul, with the hostages going free after a live news conference by the hijackers, was still being negotiated.

The ferry, which had been bound for Sochi, Russia, was hijacked in Trabzon, Turkey. Yeltsin has told Russian officials to offer all available help to the Turkish authorities.

U.S. backs Russian use of force

The Pervomaiskaya standoff began after the Chechen rebels seized 2,000 to 3,000 hostages January 9 when they raided a hospital in the nearby city of Kizlyar. At least 40 people were killed. Taking some hostages with them, the gunmen set out for Chechnya the next day, but were stopped by Russian troops at Pervomaiskaya. U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry said Wednesday in Washington that Russia was justified in using military force in response to hostage-takings.

Russian tanks rolled into Chechnya in December 1994 to end rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev's three-year drive for independence. Up to 30,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

In the Chechen capital of Grozny Thursday, a bomb explosion seriously wounded at least one soldier, Russian officials told Interfax. Four local residents were arrested on suspicion of having carried out the attack, the report said.

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Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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